Expedition to the Edges

Julia Lanthrop

Hacienda Santa EngraciaWe have made a very long day's drive from Peckerwood Garden and are in the state of Tamaulipas. It is very early, barely light, when we finish a substantial breakfast, energized by the comforts and hospitality of our country inn, Hacienda Santa Engracia.

We pass through and sometimes stop to visit small villages very different from towns of equivalent size back across the northern border. Without city planners or neighborhood building codes, these communities are much more visually integrated into their surrounding landscape. Building materials are for the most part made of the landscape: adobe, wood, weathered stucco and plaster, thatch of nolina, palm, and dasylirion, with a minimum of glass, smooth metal, or factory-produced bricks.

A few houses have metal roofs, and we realize that as modern materials make an appearance here, building supplies like the nolina thatch will be less desirable, and those plants will become less appreciated and open to abuse. Fence posts, instead of being made from machine finished lumber, are tree branches. A fence builder may use a machete to sharpen these poles to very sharp points for deflecting the rain, and often the points are topped with red paint (Sangre de Christo, "Blood of Christ").

Building colors in earth hues contrast with deeply pigmented shades that we recognize from wild morning glories or on a flowering shrub we had seen on a mountain. Living in such visual harmony with the natural world is of course often explained by economic constraints; if it is true that wealth and industry and high populations bring careless growth and a commercially determined aesthetic, then sad lessons are to be learned. Spanish moss clinging to the power lines will not be tolerated in most cities, and a hand-painted sign, number, or name on a door may take too much valuable time, when a lit billboard could bring so many more customers. For now, we can only be entranced by the elegant juxtaposition of colors on two adjacent walls, and be moved by the visual surprise of finding hand-carved crosses in the village cemetery.

We drive for many miles seeing little other road traffic, telephone lines, or city limits. Farmers here may be organized into ejidos (farming co-ops) which give a sense of community as well as economic solidarity to widely distanced neighbors. The intense physicality of this space is felt even at 100 kilometers per hour.

The dioon hill, all shale and thorny scrub acacia, rises above cultivated corn fields and a winding path of a country road. We see the fluttering fronds of these great and ancient plants, Dioon edulae var. angustifolia, as we approach, smoothly dark on top, light grey-green on the underside, alive in the breeze. As we drag our heavy cameras up the hills, we see that cattle have also climbed here, grazing on the hill. The dioon are fewer than when we last visited. We fear for the future of this plant, seeing only a few regenerating plants.

We find it impossible to care where this unpaved road might lead, as it crosses back and forth a green and rushing creek, because every few feet we see new color of morning glory or some rare plant demanding a photograph and John's explanation of its growing habit. We stop to photograph a pale sycamore, Plantanus mexicana, and are hypnotized by eddying green water, the occasional bird call, all else silent.

We have hot showers and city excitement in Monterrey and a visit with the charming and knowledgable Porfirio Sosa Jimenez at his gallery and shop Carapán, where we explore a carefully selected collection of folk art from all of Mexico.

Agave montanaAgave lophanthaWe cross a pass south of Ciudad Victoria and drive through desert areas in the rain shadow, up to a high plateau (5000 feet). Driving demands focus, as there are sheer drops just inches from our vehicle. We must back up when the road is too narrow, as trucks have the right-of-way. Up now to 7000 feet and into fog, we see our first Pinus rutis, Agave montana, Arbutus xalapensis, and a tree Nolina. Our view over the valley is vast, little villages dotting the landscape far below. We have noticed white caleche, sandstone rubble, by the roadside, but higher up we find solid limestone, host to the tenacious Agave lophantha.

Violet mountains seem far away as we make our way across vast landscapes with marching armies of gesturing Yucca filifera. By the time we reach the foothills, the mountain tops come and go in the clouds that nourish and sustain much of the vegetation in the highest places. When we have driven as high as possible, even with four wheel drive, we leave our vehicle and continue on foot.

Granite boulders in Mexico

We climb rocky cliffs, careful not to disturb colonies of ferns, Sedum palmeri, and pinguicula which cling tenuously to the granite walls. An intensely green carpet of high country grasses is dotted with minute violet, red, and yellow wildflowers, and then even higher, where mammoth granite boulders create a home for giant mountain spirits. Hearing bells, we meet horses and cattle in groups of three or four, gentle reminders that we are not the only ones interested in what grows up here, and we fear that this diverse vegetation is on their menu. The palette of the land at this altitude is the darkest green of the pines, the deep blues and violets of cloud-filled skies, and rose and pale gray stone. Raindrops send us down to avoid an approaching storm, and our last color memory of the mountain is the soft white of enveloping clouds and the wet blackness of rain on stone.